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Pittsburgh shooting comes amid rise in hate crimes, growing anxiety about right-wing extremism

A group holds a sign saying “Love Thy Neighbor (No Exceptions)” during a memorial vigil for the victims of the shooting at Tree of Life synagogue in Pittsburgh. (Gene J. Puskar/AP)

The Pittsburgh synagogue shooting that left 11 people dead Saturday has renewed calls for the federal government to update its laws to put the kind of violence targeting minorities, religious groups and the public in the same category as terrorists inspired by overseas groups.

A 2017 report by the Government Accountability Office found that since the 9/11 terrorist attacks, far-right violent extremists were responsible for 106 killings in the United States, while Islamist-inspired violent extremists had killed 119. The GAO found that while the number of deaths were roughly similar, the number of incidents were not; far-right extremists committed almost three times as many attacks — 62, compared with 23 by Islamist extremists.

“We have one of the most diversified threat matrices that we’ve had in a decade, but the most ascendant is the far right wing,” said Brian Levin, director of the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University at San Bernardino. Right-wing extremists commit more attacks, he said, but when Islamist militants act, “their attacks tend to be more lethal.”

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In the two-and-a-half years leading up to and then in the aftermath of last year’s violent white-supremacist rally in Charlottesville, Levin said he was able to identify more white-supremacist mega-rallies — defined as 100 or more people gathering in public — than there had been in all of at least the past decade.

FBI Director Christopher A. Wray testified to a Senate committee this month that his agents were pursuing about 5,000 terrorism cases, including domestic and international cases. About 1,000 of those involve homegrown suspects who appear to be inspired by global Islamist militant groups, Wray said.

The FBI is investigating roughly 1,000 cases of domestic terrorism, a category that includes both far-right and far-left extremists.

“We have assessed that that’s a steady, very serious threat,” Wray said.

FBI investigating 1,000 white supremacist, domestic terrorism cases

FBI data shows hate crimes are rising.

In 2016, hate crimes reached their highest mark since 2012 — with the FBI recording 6,121 criminal incidents motivated by bias against race, religion, sexual orientation, disability or gender. Compared with the year before, crimes against both Jews and Muslims increased, as did the number of crimes targeting lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender people. The FBI said most incidents were motivated by race or ethnicity, though of those spurred by religion, anti-Jewish bias was most likely to be the cause.

Hotly contested political races can fuel spikes in hate crimes, and President Trump’s election seemed to provide evidence of that. A 2017 study by the Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism found dramatic increases around the 2016 election in communities where law enforcement parsed data by month or quarter .

Critics say Trump has fostered the toxic environment for the political violence he denounces

Some who monitor hate crimes, though, have warned that Trump’s incendiary rhetoric might be fueling a more sustained and significant increase in hatred. The Southern Poverty Law Center, a liberal-leaning advocacy group that tracks extremism, said in a report last year that hate groups, especially anti-Muslim groups, were on the rise. Its report alleged that Trump had “electrified the radical right.” Hate crimes against Muslims spiked in the most recent FBI data, from 2016, to their highest level since 2001, when Islamist militants hijacked four airliners to attack the World Trade Center and the Pentagon, killing nearly 3,000 people and sparking a wave of anti-Muslim incidents.

Heidi Beirich, director of the SPLC’s intelligence project, said her organization had been critical of the administration during George W. Bush’s presidency and in many years of Barack Obama’s presidency for not focusing vigorously enough on right-wing extremism. In the early years of the Obama administration, the Department of Homeland Security curtailed its focus on right-wing extremism, in part over Republican criticism about a leaked report warning law enforcement agencies to be on guard for such groups.

“We spent most of the Bush administration and most of the Obama administration criticizing the federal government for not taking this stuff seriously enough,” Beirich said.

Historically, violence has come from left- and right-wing causes.

The University of Maryland’s Global Terrorism Database, which includes information dating to 1970, documents a surge in left-wing violence stemming from the civil rights movement, including bombings perpetrated by the militant Weather Underground.

By the 1990s, a period that included the rise of Islamist extremist groups, attacks in the United States began to diversify, said Erin Miller, who manages the database. And more were intentionally lethal, among them the Oklahoma City bombing that killed 168.

In the past decade, Miller said, it has been difficult to ascertain a precise pattern because many attacks have been carried out by unaffiliated individuals. But each of the three attacks in the past week — the fatal shooting of two African Americans at a Kentucky grocery store, the 14 package bombs sent to prominent Trump critics and CNN, and the massacre in Pittsburgh — appear to fit a profile.

“Based on the preliminary information we now have,” Miller said, “all of the perpetrators appear to have ideological motives that fit under the broader umbrella of right wing.”

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While today’s heightened partisan tensions sometimes prompt comparisons with the 1960s, few see exact parallels to the political violence of that era.

By 1968, the U.S. government was responding to mass protest movements with overwhelming force, said Erica Chenoweth, a professor of public policy at Harvard’s Kennedy School of Government who studies political violence.

The movement resisting Trump’s policies has been “stunningly nonviolent,” Chenoweth noted, “even when protesters volunteer themselves for arrest through civil disobedience.”

A study conducted after last year’s Charlottesville rally suggests why: While violent tactics are sometimes expected of far-right groups, those same strategies can backfire politically for leftist groups that have built their identity around ideals of peace and justice. Violence, Chenoweth said, has proved less effective in producing political change than nonviolent action.

Some current and former law enforcement officials have said Congress should change terrorism laws to show the public that one type of hateful violence is not treated more seriously than another. Last week, the FBI Agents Association renewed its call for lawmakers to specify domestic terrorism crimes.

Federal law, stemming from the civil rights era, is written in order for prosecutors to charge many crimes against minorities, religious or persecuted groups as hate crimes, whereas crimes inspired by the Islamic State terrorist group are usually charged as terrorism offenses. The government’s ability to designate a particular group as a foreign terrorist organization is a powerful tool, allowing prosecutors to charge anyone who provides support to that group. While that is likely untenable with U.S. organizations, the law could be modified so that if someone meeting the legal definition of a terrorist committed a crime, they could be charged with a separate terrorism offense, said John Carlin, the former head of the Justice Department's National Security Division.

Federal law enforcement officials insist there is little practical difference between the two methods — that the FBI can and does pursue each type of violence aggressively, and the Justice Department seeks maximum penalties for those crimes. Some current and former law enforcement officials, however, fear the public perception is that they are less serious about hate crimes because they don’t label such violence as terrorism.

“It is time to treat domestic terrorism as the national threat that it is, and track, analyze, and punish political violence at the federal level,” the FBI Agents Association said in a statement last week. “Winning the fight against domestic terrorism is not about parties or political views; it is about ending political violence.”

Other current and former law enforcement officials view that kind of change as unnecessary and potentially problematic, depending on how such a law was written.

“There are no investigative or prosecutorial gaps,” said Chuck Rosenberg, a former U.S. attorney and senior FBI official. “The FBI has the investigative tools it needs, and U.S. attorneys have the prosecutorial tools they need for these types of crimes.”

Within the Justice Department, officials who have favored such a change in the law have pointed to a pair of 2014 shootings that killed three people outside a Jewish community center and a Jewish retirement facility in Overland Park, Kan.

The gunman in that case, a former senior member of the Ku Klux Klan, was prosecuted by state authorities. Some current and former law enforcement officials have expressed concerns privately that the lack of a federal prosecution was a missed opportunity to put a national spotlight on the dangers of anti-Semitic violence, and show the public that Washington is focused on the issue.

The gunman went to trial in state court, where he was convicted and sentenced to death.